Monthly Archives: June 2014

Why You Shouldn’t Hire Mystery Shoppers

For years I’ve questioned the madness of businesses that attempt to gauge customer satisfaction by hiring secret shoppers.  They have their arguments, of course, for doing what they do.  They’re seeking unbiased and random feedback.  They want to know who’s providing good service and who’s not.  Okay.  I understand wanting to know both those things, and I have a jones for data.  But if you look at the best businesses, they’re able to discover this same information simply by communicating with current customers.  Also, they use something that’s much more advanced—eyeballs and eardrums.  That’s right, their leaders are present and able to observe and enforce the best customer service possible.  There’s more to it, of course—things like treating employees how you want them to treat customers, things like training—oh, and a another little thing I like to call trust. 

Mystery Shopping is a billion-dollar business rife with scams and untrained spies.  I personally would never pay another company to spy on my workers.  I don’t know who they’re sending in or why I should base my opinions of my employees on their experiences.  For all I know, they could be making everything up—and there are plenty of workers out there who say that a secret shopper has nearly cost them their jobs by providing false information.  Since secret shoppers are generally unemployed, un-vetted and untrained, why in the hell would I trust their evaluation over my own management team’s?

What happens, however, is that someone at the top decides that customer service is lacking, and rather than doing the hard work of building a workplace culture of excellent service with service standards and training, he or she sends in a team of secret shoppers and starts a regiment of punishment and reward.  The workers are then on edge—as distrusted people generally are—and somehow either get inaccurately high or low scores.   No one bothers to look into what really happened.  They just trust the secret shopper who, incidentally, could be an outright liar or criminal.  The data is shaky at best and false at worst.  Plus, the cost of the program is unreasonable—$50 to $500 for each visit.  Let’s say you schedule 10 visits a month for a year.  Using the average cost ($275), you’re looking at $33,000 per year.  If you invested that same money into your employees and training, you’d have better results. 1403641841234

An Employee by Any Other Name

“What’s in a name?” Romeo says to Juliet.  And I’m asking you the same question.  It’s been a trend for the last decade to rename employees.  With branding being all the rage, it makes sense, right?  And I won’t disagree that it can work to help create a unified and proud workforce.  Disney and its “cast members” are an example of this.  What I have a problem with are companies who rename employees without making an effort to reshape their employee culture to mirror this new moniker.

Still, some enjoy being renamed and consider the word “employee” dated.  I suppose there’s truth to that.  And yet why isn’t someone coming up with a new name for “employer?”  Both words simply identify the relationship and could be compared to the words “teacher” and “student.”  None of these words offend me, nor do I find them old fashioned.  I see them as bland labelers that help clarify relationships and roles.

That said, if “employee” is a bland labeler, perhaps spicing it up to align with the company’s brand is a good plan.  But what sometimes happens is that employees are renamed something they’re not.  For instance, Wal Mart calls its employees “associates.”  But what has Wal Mart done to make this so?  Have they insisted on a work-life balance, compensated fairly, created a fair and satisfying work environment, provided clear opportunities for growth or offered their workers job autonomy?  Since the factors above, according to CareerBliss, are the main contributors to workplace happiness, I would say that Wal Mart needs to do more than simply call their employees “associates.”  They need to treat them as such.  On the other hand, Google insists on creating a satisfied workforce, and so being called a “Googler” gives you bragging rights.  Apart from television commercials, you probably won’t be hearing Wal Mart workers saying, “I’m a Wal Mart Associate.”

If your company has a strong enough culture, you can get away with renaming your employees.  I have no problem with Starbucks calling its people “Partners” because they are treated that way.  I do have issues with companies who can’t quite grasp how to treat modern workers thinking they can solve all their problems with a name.  Just because you’re calling your employees “team members” doesn’t mean you’ve got a team.  In fact, if you’ve got a high turnover and a hotbed of disgruntled employees, calling them team members is hypocritical.

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Do Industries Have Natures?

A friend of mine, who’s one of the best in his field, is being replaced at his company by a friend of the new director.  When my friend asked why, the HR Director told him, “It’s just the nature of our industry…you know how it is.”

So not only is he losing his job, there’s nothing to blame but an “industry,” one he’s worked in for years.

But I’m not buying it.  Though it’s true some industries with low-paying part-time jobs have high turnovers, no industry is above being fair to their dedicated employees; and no industry should be blamed when unfair decisions are being made.  Along with that, no industry should be given credit for being a “great industry” to work for either—because it’s the people in charge who are making it a great place to work, whatever that work might be.

Let’s take the fast food industry.  This particular industry has a reputation for turnover and poor wages.  But if it’s the actual industry, why is In-N-Out such a great place to work?  It’s because the owners value employees, compensate them well and develop them to their fullest potential.  Let’s take another notorious industry, Construction.   This industry is known for a rough and ready crowd—a “man’s world.”  I happen to have a friend who owns a construction company.  He’s family orientated, and his daughters are both carpenters.  He provides a family friendly work environment and even offers flex time to those needing to attend family events.  During the recession, he took a huge pay cut to ensure his staff were compensated.  Ultimately, he was forced to lay several off, but he vowed to hire them back when the economy improved.  He has since hired everyone back.

Those are just a few examples of good business.  So perhaps an industry has a reputation, but its nature comes from specific company leaders.  Blaming an industry for bad business practices is akin to when sexual harassment is attributed to the “boys will be boys” theory.  It’s a non-sequitur argument:  “This” does not automatically follow “That.”

As we push forward through the 21st Century, I’m confident that the best business leaders will shirk the idea of industry natures entirely and repair their industry reputations.   Meanwhile, I truly hope those in my field will avoid blaming an industry’s nature for any decisions being made.


The Mad Scientist of People Management

Old ways are hard to shake.  This is a hard truth in business despite every applicant claiming to be “an agent for change.”  On a recent Freakonomics podcast, economist Steve Levitt discussed how disinclined people are to say “I don’t know.” He talked of one company that continued running paper insert ads even though they had no proof the ads were bringing in customers.  When Steve Levitt suggested they stop running the ads just to see if customer numbers changed, the executives thought he was crazy.  Running the experiment, you see, would be an admission of not knowing whether the expensive ads worked or not.

I’d like to think this is rare, this type of thinking.  But it’s not.  Our failure to apply the scientific method to work practices keeps us in the dark ages and wastes money.  And though this type of stubborn thinking is common in all departments, it’s most common in people management because no one wants to experiment on people.  So we hang on with all our might to our esprit de corps-crushing performance evaluations, employee of the months, company picnics, warning notices, hierarchies (gag me with your chain-of-commands already!), archaic trainings and creaky recruitment practices.  Even when we think we’re pushing the boundaries, we’re not.  Take LinkedIn.  Really, it’s just an electronic and faster version of the same things we’ve always used:  resumes, job boards, and references.

But some companies are experimenting.  Take Google, Amazon, Adobe or that mad scientist, Zappos.  When Zappos recently decided they’d put an end to traditional hiring practices, people went nutso on Twitter.  One comment read, “I wouldn’t last a day there. I’m way too old (49) and old school in my thinking (merit, honesty, substance) to get into kilt Fridays, enema Tuesdays, mu mu Wednesdays, whatever. It’s all yours, millennials.” Isn’t it interesting that new ways to manage people raise questions about merit, honesty and substance?  Stuck-in-their-ways thinkers only defense is that they have ethics, and no one with new ideas does.  Faulty logic aside, Zappos is breaking ground, not breaking bad.  And they are insisting on culture fits.  Clearly, the person above—at the ripe old age of 49 (watch it buster, that’s me in 2 years) is not a good fit.  As for me, I’m no millennial, but I’m ready for experiments and fresh ideas.  Also, I’m tired of not saying, “I don’t know,” when I really don’t know.

Many of the structures we have in place for managing people are breaking at the seams.  When I hear about people management innovation, I don’t grumble; rather, I jump and sing.  Some of the innovations will likely fail, but at least someone’s willing to take a risk and try something fresh and modern.   Complacency in life and at work is toxic for productivity, and we need these new thinkers in the area of people management.

So, we’ve got work to do, as always.  The first step is not only to embrace change—it’s to make change through the willingness to experiment, to apply the scientific method, to say “I don’t know.”  Ask questions about your people management strategies.  Are they really working to further the company’s mission?  This isn’t about reinvention or reconstruction of current practices, incidentally—it’s about shedding a process or practice and analyzing what happens, good or bad.  It’s about then taking this data and generating a solution unshackled by the past’s constraints.

All of us in the people management business need to use data to determine whether our practices are worthwhile. We need to try entirely different methods and then analyze the results.  And if our experiments fail, we need to try again.    Isn’t this how we forward anything—a business, a country, a culture, a cure?